|Venue: Kolos Stadium, Kovalivka Date: Friday 9 April|
|Coverage: Live coverage on BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport NI website and Red Button. Kick-off at 17:00 BST|
Despite winning 114 caps in the 17 years since her Northern Ireland debut in 2004, life is still throwing up firsts for Julie Nelson.
Part of the rebirth of the women’s national team, Nelson has lived and breathed every second of the team’s journey to history makers.
Now, with Northern Ireland just two matches away from a first-ever major finals starting with an away game in Ukraine on Friday, the 35-year-old is also feeling the effects closer to home.
“The other week I was paying for fuel and I had my Northern Ireland tracksuit on, and the man behind the desk asked me if the draw had been made for the play-off yet,” said the defender.
“That is something that never would have happened before and people would never have batted an eyelid. There has definitely been a lot more attention.”
The added attention is a direct result of Northern Ireland’s fairytale run to a Euro 2022 play-off. Classified as rank outsiders before qualifying started, Kenny Shiels’ side edged Wales into second spot in the group.
Northern Ireland has long been the country of the underdog, and Nelson was involved in the first-ever squad when the national team was reformed in 2004. The progress not only embodies the team, but also Nelson.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us, I’ve been waiting 17 years for this opportunity to come around, so we will give it out all to get to the European championships,” said Nelson, who was the first woman to win 100 caps for NI.
“We have that belief in our squad. I don’t think any of us are considering any other option other than getting through.
“Playing Ukraine, an opposition we are somewhat familiar with, it does help and they are a good side. Hopefully that can work in our favour and we’re all going into the game with a positive mindset.
“The emotions after December’s qualifiers were a new one for us. Even to be part of the draw last month, all of us were so excited to see Northern Ireland in the hat. We hadn’t properly dreamed that would be the case.
“To consider the thought of playing at a European Championship, it would be out of this world. It would be unbelievable for us.”
We want to win for injured players
Despite the lack of competitive matches, Northern Ireland have been rocked by injuries to Lauren Wade, Abbie Magee and Rachel Newborough which will keep them out of the play-off.
The trio join long-term absentees Demi Vance, Megan Bell, Caitlin McGuinness and Caragh Hamilton on the sidelines.
Nelson, who recovered from a potentially career-ending knee injury when playing in the USA in 2005, said she hopes Northern Ireland can reach the finals for their team-mates.
“It’s gutting for them and it’s gutting for us as a squad. They are still coming along to the training sessions and they are still part of the group,” said Nelson.
“When I did my ACL I was studying in America on a scholarship and I felt part of the team. That helps with your mental health along with everything else.”
Nelson added it is important not to rush their recoveries and aim for “long-term gain over short-term pain”.
“It is important for them to stay positive, focus on the short-term and now rush back. I waited the full 10 months after my surgery before I played a game again and I didn’t go ahead in any step of my rehab.
“For the sake of one or two months then, when I’m now playing 15 years later, for me it was the long-term gain.
“I would encourage the injured girls to do the same, not to rush back. It is gutting they’ll miss the two games and hopefully we can get the job done and they will be available for the European Championship finals next summer.”
The game is growing
While women’s football has been growing rapidly across the globe, Nelson believes NI’s progress “will take the game here to another level”.
Of the 23 players in Shiels’ squad for the play-off, 15 are based locally in the Irish League and Nelson, who plays for Crusaders Strikers, believes that gives a “nice blend and a no-fear attitude”” to the panel.
“They bring a really good energy. A lot of them haven’t had opportunities to play elsewhere but they are getting a good grounding with their clubs and the structures that are put in place by the IFA,” she said.
“I would have loved the opportunity to experience that. I wasn’t aware that girls really played football, I only really discovered it when I was 13, 14 or 15-years-old.
“Clubs are beginning to engage with girls at a young age. It’s great for them to see that there is a future for them in the game, which is great.”
Nelson said it is a shame that the second leg at Belfast on Tuesday will be behind closed doors and feels “we definitely would have sold out Seaview” but believes the second leg, which will be shown on BBC Two NI, can give the game the profile it deserves.
“I hope all of us are an inspiration in our own way and hopefully the young girls coming through look up to myself and the other senior players,” said Nelson, who added the current squad is one of the best groups she has been involved in.
“It’s massive, even for us to get to the play-offs considering where we were ranked. It will be great for the girls to watch it on TV and if we can get to the finals in England it will take the game to another level here.
“A Northern Ireland squad may never get this opportunity again, so we are determined not to let it pass us by.”